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Design Students Draw Up Plans to Try to Save School : Art: The Santa Monica College program, lauded for its unique curriculum and setting, will hold a benefit Saturday in wake of funding cuts, rent hike.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With hammers pounding and tools ringing in the background, a group of 45 art students are clustered together on some old, mismatched couches. Shivering slightly from the draft wafting through the warehouse they call home, the students are brainstorming about an upcoming fund-raiser, one which they hope will keep their school afloat.

“We’re talking about saving our school--nothing else matters at this point,” one student says, chastising the others--who represent a range of ages and ethnic groups--for slacking off.

The school in question is the Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture, an experimental, hands-on, low-cost art school that opened in the fall of 1990 as an adjunct to Santa Monica College. The school first held its classes at the Santa Monica Airport, but from the start called an old 63,000-square-foot Colorado Avenue furniture warehouse its home. At that time the building had no electricity, water or other amenities.

With an impressive faculty including top artists Laddie John Dill, Peter Alexander and George Herms, as well as noted architects and designers Jeff Daniels, Roland Young and Deborah Sussman, the young school has won much praise within contemporary art circles. And after more than a year of work, its 60 students have molded the warehouse into the perfect artists’ setting, complete with spacious individual studios for each student--an unheard-of luxury for undergraduates.

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But now, faced with a budget cut of more than 30%, topped by a more-than-20-fold increase in rent on the warehouse, the students fear that their experiment is about to come to an end. They must raise $40,000 to keep it going through June.

In a last-ditch effort, students and faculty have joined together to plan an “Open House and Benefit Bash"--featuring performances and a raffle of faculty works--on Saturday from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m.

“We need to raise the $40,000 to buy us some time,” says artist Dill, coordinator of the school’s visual arts section. “If we don’t raise that money, we will lose the building, and the building has a lot to do with the way the whole school’s set up. The school will remain intact, but we’d have to go back to classrooms, and it’ll be a radically different curriculum. We’d have to rethink our whole teaching philosophy.”

Grounded in what several faculty separately referred to as “the reality theory” of art education, the school’s students--who pay only $100 a year each in tuition and are admitted solely on the basis of their art portfolios--have undertaken such novel “assignments” as building their own studio walls and tables. While structured classes are included in the curriculum, the emphasis is on actual artwork produced and critiqued inside of the students’ studios.

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“I stress having to address the problems they’re going to run into when they leave here,” said Dill, who described the school as “funky, creative, highly different” and similar to CalArts predecessor Chouinard Art Institute. “We take a real street-level approach. Just like the problems that we’re having here financially--that’s reality, the same reality these students will run into on their own.”

Several students agreed that their education was radically different from that of other art schools.

“There’s nowhere else like this school, where you get this kind of freedom, where you’re in your studio and you just work on your own and develop your ideas. I came here almost out of desperation after checking out other schools and totally hating the way they structured things. I don’t think I could go anywhere else,” said second-year student Julie Fantl, 22.

The school’s financial problems began earlier this year when state education budget cuts forced Santa Monica College to impose a one-third, across-the-board cut on its programs, including the art school. Already relying on donated equipment, a limited administration and faculty salaries of $1,000 a month and less, the cuts hit deep. They forced elimination of the school’s assistant director post and the end of its weekly visiting artists program, which featured lectures and workshops taught by top artists including Lita Albuquerque, John Baldessari, Alexis Smith and Ed Ruscha.

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Then, faced by its own financial realities, the Lowe Corp., which had basically donated the 63,000-square-foot warehouse space to the school for only $163 a month, raised the school’s rent to $4,000 monthly.

“They’re still being philanthropic . . . but because of this damn economy, they’re under the gun and have to show some kind of profit on the building,” said Dill. “And with budget cutbacks (at Santa Monica College), we’re a luxury item. So for this building, we’re on our own. There’s no more money coming.”

Joan Abrahamson, the school’s director, says long-term hopes are for Santa Monica College to work out a deal with the city for the school to take over an abandoned hangar at Santa Monica Airport. But until then, she hopes to keep the warehouse building, which she called “extremely important to the lifeblood of the school--there’s nowhere else we could have the studios and the powerful sense of community we have here.” Nevertheless, she has been visiting various sites hoping to come up with a more affordable alternative should fund-raising efforts fail.

But some students, such as Dane Scarborough, 34, remained undaunted: “I don’t know what we’d do if we lost our walls, but we’d probably move to the beach and draw in the sand if we had to. We’re a free-forming entity, and we’ll do whatever we have to do to keep going.”

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* Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture Benefit Bash, 2204 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 281-1750. Saturday, 7 p.m.-2 a.m. $30.


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